Star Shortstops, Where Art Thou?

Before I start, let's just look at how the WAR leaderboards stack out right now:

C : 10 players at 2+ WAR, 4 players at 3+ WAR

1B: 14 players at 2+ WAR, 9 players at 3+ WAR, 6 players at 4+ WAR, 2 players at 5+ WAR

2B: 10 players at 2+ WAR, 8 players at 3+ WAR, 2 players at 4+ WAR, 1 player at 5+ WAR

3B: 12 players at 2+ WAR, 7 players at 3+ WAR, 4 players at 4+ WAR, 1 player at 5+ WAR

SS: 9 players at 2+ WAR, 1 player at 3+ WAR, 1 player at 4+ WAR

LF: 10 players at 2+ WAR, 6 players at 3+ WAR, 5 players at 4+ WAR, 2 players at 5+ WAR

CF: 10 players at 2+ WAR, 3 players at 3+ WAR, 2 players at 4+ WAR

RF: 15 players at 2+ WAR, 7 players at 3+ WAR

If you ask me, that's a startling lack of top-level performance from the game's shorstops.

Rafael Furcal is currently by far the best shortstop in baseball in terms of WAR, as his 4.0 mark absolutely dwarfs the second-place 2.7 WAR marks posted by Alexei Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki. Furcal is currently on pace for 6.1 WAR, while Ramirez and Tulowitzki are on pace for 4.1 WAR. That means the three best shortstops in baseball are on pace to put up 14.3 WAR total this year.

Let's do another quick comparison here of the combined WAR accumulated by the top-3 shortstops in MLB each year, I say:

2010: 14.3 WAR (current pace)

2009: 29.4 WAR (Jeter, H. Ramirez, Tulowitzki)

2008: 18.8 WAR (H. Ramirez, Reyes, Rollins)

2007: 17.4 WAR (Rollins, H. Ramirez, Reyes)

2006: 17.7 WAR (Jeter, Guillen, Reyes)

2005: 14.5 WAR (Tejada, Furcal, F. Lopez)

2004: 16.8 WAR (Tejada, Guillen, Jeter)

2003: 21.1 WAR (A-Rod, Renteria, Garciaparra)

2002: 20.1 WAR (A-Rod, Jeter, Hernandez)

We're looking at easily the biggest down year for top-level shortstop performance since 2005. Although it's worth noting that eight different shortstops put up 3.9+ WAR in 2005, while only four are on pace to do that in 2010. 

Obviously this was some pretty quick-and-dirty research, but I simply found the lack of star-level play from this year's shortstops to be both surprising, and as someone who loves a good shortstop, disappointing. I think there are a few things that can explain the drop, which come nicely after the hip-hop.

  • Two of guys who have been playing really, really well at shortstop this year, Furcal and Tulowitzki, have missed significant time this season due to injuries. They're still in the top-3 in WAR among shortstops despite this.
  • Multiple other guys who have been near or at the top in the past, primarily Reyes and Rollins, have also missed time this season due to injuries. And it wouldn't shock me if those lingering injuries could be affecting their performance somewhat, too.  
  • Derek Jeter is showing some of his age. He's already 36, and it doesn't look like he has enough in the tank to toss out a 7+ win season again like he did last year. His numbers look an awful lot like they did in 2008, except with a slightly lower BABIP. Then again, people were saying similar things about Captain Jetes after that season, too.
  • The one shortstop who has essentially been a lock for elite-level performance the past few years, Hanley Ramirez, is finally having a down-year offensively. His line still puts him among the best offensive shortstops in baseball, but with a -8 UZR factored in he's on pace for by far his worst performance since his rookie season. 
  • Luck. These things happen. Maybe next year Ramirez and Tulowitzki will battle for the NL MVP while Derek Jeter has a resurgent age-37 season and Starlin Castro emerges as the next great shortstop. Maybe the entire lot is rather disappointing again like this season. I wouldn't bet on it though; a lot of really good shortstops haven't played up to their potential this year, while only Furcal and Alex Gonzalez are clearly playing over their heads. Plus, I really, really like Starlin Castro.
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